If nothing else, the fact-based sea-faring adventure Kon-Tiki allows one to revel in the basic pleasures of cinematic craftsmanship, which is a dying art in the age of the bloated summer blockbuster as recurring toy commercial. Directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg confidently establish and maintain spatial relationships between people and objects, and the action sequences are impressively detailed and occasionally memorable. Geir Hartly Andreassen’s cinematography stunningly allows the Pacific Ocean to assert itself as a co-star of terrifyingly vast anonymity, and Petter Skavlan’s script efficiently covers the expository beats necessary to getting the heroes out in the middle of the water on a precariously rickety handcrafted raft. Almost indisputably competent, the film should please a number of viewers on a sleepy late summer night.
But the film is also disappointingly square; it lacks the fire and eccentricity that we want from our stories of adventurers driven by obsessions that could be seen as egotistical or just plain bonkers. This conventionality is a particular waste in the case of Kon-Tiki, which details the legendary expedition that Norwegian explorer, writer, and Oscar-winning documentarian Thor Heyerdahl undertook in 1947. Trying and failing to convince book publishers of his theory that South Americans inhabited Polynesia in pre-Colombian times, Heyerdahl recruited a small group of friends, (barely) cobbled together some funding from a variety of sources, and built a raft, which he named after the titular Incan sun god, that could reasonably exist in that era. Heyerdahl then set sail from Peru, eventually smashing 101 days later into the reefs of the Tuamotu Islands in French Polynesia, thus proving that it was, in fact, possible for South Americans to make a trip that conventional wisdom deemed impossible.
Rønning and Sandberg, unsurprisingly, occupy themselves primarily with the perils that Heyerdahl and his crew faced while out in the middle of the ocean. Sharks and crew morale are major concerns, as well as maintaining the physical conditions of the raft itself, but the prevailing danger is the ocean’s current, which threatens to push the Kon-Tiki off-course toward a portion of the Galapagos Islands that would almost certainly lead to the crew crashing into large reefs to their demise. Throughout it all, Heyerdahl, who appears to have adopted the Kon-Tiki as a personal god, insists on their destiny to prevail.
In the tradition of many biographies, Kon-Tiki is dramatically crippled by authorial retrospection. The filmmakers accept Heyerdahl, without irony, as a conventional hero because they obviously recognize that he got to Polynesia without killing anyone in the process. But Heyerdahl’s quest, despite the balls and ingenuity it unquestionably took to undertake, also, like many historic explorations, sprung to life as a morally negligible pissing contest. Yes, Heyerdahl was looking to broaden ethnographic theory, but he also knew a great attention-grabbing stunt when he saw one. The story begs for a bit of satirical madness in the tradition of The African Queen, Werner Herzog’s best films, or even Jaws. And a juicy, pivotal irony, that many experts still doubt Heyerdahl’s theory, is ignored for the sake of convenient third-act uplift. Heyerdahl isn’t sentimentalized exactly (Pål Sverre Hagen, borrowing heavily from Peter O’Toole’s Lawrence, plays the man as an unknowable ghost), but he isn’t allowed to command the frame as the self-aggrandizing, full-blooded visionary the film so richly needs. Rønning and Sandberg have taken a rich, fascinating true story of entitlement accidentally rewarded and turned it into another dull and obvious testament to the fruits of determination.